Perspectives of Discernment in John Henry Newman

Anand Amaladass S. J.

Image Courtesy: J Ferlic

At times of crisis and under the pressure before moments of decision the question comes up concerning the authentic development of teaching, that is, whether some criteria could be drawn up for authenticity. Perhaps the most prominent example of John Henry Newman’s (1801–1890) Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine could provide such a criterion. It was written before his conversion to Catholic Church after his deliberation on the claims of Anglican and the Roman Catholic Church, where his theology and biography are woven together, as Peter Becker, Vienna, sums up in seven steps.

The seven criteria of Newman

In order to understand Newman’s criteria one must begin with his philosophy of faith described in his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. (1870) The object of analysis is here his personal certainty, i.e. realization of truth under the perspective of whole person. Newman proceeds from the interplay of rational and intuitive powers: conscience, heart and the ‘deductive sense’ (power of judging and concluding — illative sense), in which the intuitive and intellectual elements combine. The progress of man is therefore a ‘living growth, not a mechanism; his instruments are spiritual acts and not the formal and artistic formulation of language.’

One: Holding on to a type:

The first principle comes closer to the biological development. As in the sprout/bud the inner potential elements of a being are already shown, it is true also in an idea. The external appearance could strongly vary. The tree has externally very little in common with the seed, but out of this core nothing else could arise except a particular tree. That means, that externally great changes are not to be excluded.

This criterion first of all cannot easily be applied to individuals. How should one recognize and grasp the idea of one’s own existence? Often certain traits of another’s personality could be better understood than one’s own. Perhaps it shows itself after the death of a person what was his spiritual type and the idea of his life. However by looking back on one’s stages of life one can decode the basic traits of his life. So the first criterion thus raises the question of loyalty to the origin and its continuity.

Two: Continuity of the principles.

Here it is content-wise about the completion of the first test. Newman proceeds from the idea that the personal first principles underlie the thought of a person which form and guide this. So also there are baselines and thought and action which remain consistent within the framework of development. In the first place Newman observes that in a discussion the personal principles come to the foreground where the rational arguments emerge. It is the question of influencing power behind various attitudes and developments.

This criterion demands thus certain self-knowledge and examining one’s own value-sets. What are my personal basic principles of thinking and acting? Which are merely the imaginary ones? In spite of the difficulty to discover these principles in the concrete arguments and attitude of life, one can make out certain basic lines, especially where we are hurt or questioned. A complementary question could therefore be: where does the resistance manifest itself and where does it come from?

Three: The power of assimilation.

In the lively development of an idea it can happen, that as in a natural growth, external and originally not belonging to the pre-conceptions, attitudes and ways of thinking could be integrated to the idea and so they contribute to the growth. “This lively growth that it takes up stuff from outside into its own substance; and this absorption or assimilation is completed, when the integrated stuff finally belongs to him and enter in his unity.”

This criterion should sensitize for an attitude which works against both of a separation in the old or also of a simple fitting into the new. The assimilation therefore demands the discernment or sorting out of the materials. Not everything that finds itself in the surrounding of an idea is compatible and for the further growth. Some could work profitably and others must be left out.

Four: Logical Consistency

With this criterion Newman brings a rational element. Logic means here not a formal or mathematical conclusion from premises, but the inner logic, the organic growth of certain thought till it explicitly comes to light: “Logic is the organization of thinking and as such a security for the genuineness of intellectual developments.” With regard to personal development this test invites to consider one’s life as a mature one and to follow its inner logic. Which experiences and influences have led us to a certain thought process? Which attitudes, influences and convictions build on one another?

Five: Anticipation of one’s future.

Certain principles, which from the beginning are inherent in an idea, are also traceable at later stages. This point he raised it already in the first and second tests. Here he develops it further. Newman saw aspects of later developments already contained in the early Church. That builds for him the principle of openness of the material for the grace and faith in the incarnation a precursor in the practice of veneration of the relics. Even in the biographies of famous men and women whose childhood and youth are analyzed to see whether there too signs of later tendencies could be traced. The criterion thus looks at the past again. What interests and events have influenced our own childhood and youth?

Six: Preserving impact of the past

A development cannot be healthy, if it fully contradicts its own history and presents a quasi self-negation. So Newsman continues as further ‘conservative’ principle the preserving of one’s past: a genuine development one can therefore describe as such a one, which receives and preserves the ongoing developments. Since it is in reality this ongoing one and still something outside of him, it is an addition, with the thought system from which it proceeds. It develops and does not darken; strengthens and not corrects; and this is its characteristic different from that of a corruption.”

An authentic development builds thus a positive continuation of the earlier one; it is a progress to the betterment. As a criterion of discernment the question could thus run as follows: does it allow itself to explain and understand a new stage from the earlier development? Can the new integrate the previous one or does it present a break?

Seven: Continuing power of life

The last criterion of Newman corresponds to his observation that a development, so it proceeds organically, becomes fruitful, it does not takes away the liveliness, but even gets strengthened. Against this heresies and corruptions bring with it fruitlessness and carries, similar to a sickness, a tendency to its own annihilation. Even in personal life it can be an index for a healthy development, if someone enters into a new surrounding, develops powers and gains new vitality, which lead to its unfolding and growth.

Summing up:

Newman in his Anglican period came in contact with the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. In his Apologia pro vita sua (1865) he brings in the immediacy of human being to God in the process of the Exercises. Man remains finally in a kind of loneliness of decision, which even the established criteria could not relieve him. The individual person finds in the question about the break of his own existence already meaning-content and growth perspectives, which can be recognized his own development and can make fruitful for the future processes of decision.

The author’s (Anand Amaladass) present research focuses on aesthetic spirituality and option for the least, Jesuit history in India and Tamilology.



Bulletin of the Chennai Jesuit Province

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